Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Opening Up

'Doing things differently' is a key pledge of the recently-re-elected Labour Council.

We've listened to what the poeple of Darlington have said, and promised to look at how the Council operates, to ensure that transparency and openness are at the heart of everything we do.

A key test will be how Cabinet meetings operate. Not everyone is aware that Government rather than local rules dictate the formation of Cabinets. Parliament wanted to sweep away the old Committee system in local government, which was too closely associated with delay, and with whipped votes decided in advance. Unfortunately, that also spelled the death-knell for debate regarding key decisions. Cabinet meetings are turgid affairs, with a single party moving and agreeing decisions. That the opposition can challenge Cabinet resolutions by bringing in Scrutiny and ultimately Full Council has been rarely deployed here in Darlington.

It will be shortly announced, however, that the Leaders of the Tories and the LibDems, together with the independent Chair of Darlington Partnership and one of the Scrutiny Chairs will all sit at Cabinet meetings and be able to question and debate the proposals. They can't vote because of the framework laid down by Parliament, but this change will help hold the Executive to account. I expect there to be greater interest in Cabinet meetings, and probably more referrals to Scrutiny as a result.

Be prepared for further developments in the same vein over the next few weeks. Overall, this should be very good for democracy in the town.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some explanation is called for here, Nick.
It cannot be true that Parliamentary dictat precludes non-majority group councillors from voting in Cabinet. There are many examples of "hung" councils where more than one party is represented in Cabinet, all with a vote. If you wanted to be really democratic, rather than just appearing to be listening, you would have given three Cabinet positions to Conservative and Liberal Democrat Councillors, with power to control policy in their respective executive areas.
Secondly, since the Labour Party still controls all the Scrutiny Committees as well as Cabinet, why do you assume there will be more referrals to Scrutiny. Won't the actions of each Scrutiny Committee be dpendent on a voting majority: which in every case will be made up of councillors from the same party which controls Cabinet?
I see no change whatsoever in who wields power in this Borough. A bit of "Caring, sharing, listening" isn't going to convince the directly-elected mayor lobby that the Council is any more open and representative than it was before, as long as one party, supported by a minority of voters in the town, continues to control the decision-making process.

Darlington Councillor said...

Yes, in hung Councils, anonymous, portfolios can be divided between parties forming the governing coalition. But here in Darlington one party has a majority, and I'd be delighted to learn of any majority party anywhere in the country which has voluntarily turned itself into a hung council by handing out portfolios to the opposition when that wasn't the election result.

Think through the maths. If a Tory was given the Highways portfolio, for example, and brought a paper to Cabinet advocating free parking, then Labour would have the numbers in Cabinet or Council to vote it down. The Tory would be reduced to implementing Labour's manifesto, and would be placed in an impossible position.

You say that Labour controls all the Scrutiny Committees. Firstly, scrutiny doesn't operate on a whipped basis, so no-one is in control. Secondly, the Tories have one of the 5 chairs and the LibDems a vice-chair, so it's not complete hegemony as far as Labour is concerned. Finally, there could be more referrals to Scrutiny because it doesn't require a majority of councillors on a scrutiny committee to make a referral. Consequently, the opposition can refer any item from Cabinet to Scrutiny at will.

No, this doesn't turn Darlington into a hung council, because that wasn't the result of the election. It does signal that business will be conducted very differently, in a more open and transparent fashion, and I think that will be welcomed by the people of the Borough.

ian white, townliar.com said...

Nick
Actions speak louder than words! Lets see some actions so the people can see if there is any difference or if it is as earlier posters have implied it is just PR to fend of the elected Mayor challenge as many will suspect.

Paul Leake said...

anon: There are quite a few councils that have opposition members as non-portfolio members of the cabinet, but I doubt you'll find a outright party controlled council in the country that has given portfolios to members of other parties. The size of the cabinet is limited by law so each opposition non-portfolio member means one less member to work on the portfolios. Having seen councils with opposition members on the cabinet I'm not convinced it makes half as much difference as if there were really effective, non-partisan scrutiny. Despite that being a key part of the Government's plans for local councils tragically few councils are managing it.

Anonymous said...

Nick

What is your opinion of these new committee things mike barker is waffling on about? do you think they are a good thing?

Do you not think this is very insulting to all the present Parish Councillors who work hard for their wards as well as all of the volunteers who are on community Partnerships. To me it sounds like there is enough groups around representing their wards and that if handled correctly and more money and responsibility was given to the existing groups there would be no need for the lib dems to set up these new groups in order to give "back Bencher Councillors" something to do and feel responsible for.

I think they have come up with this responsibility as they realise that a Parish Council works bloody hard for their own ward and is represented by people who actually live in their ward and know what is needed.

In the case of Hurworth for example neither of the Lib Dem ward Councillors can be on the Parish Councils in the Ward because they dont live there. They just listen in to what is being reported then phone the town hall and put things in their Focus leaflet claiming they got it done. Really it is very insulting to the Parish's, I am suprised that they can actually get away with doing this. Well may be not that suprised.

Mike Barker claims more responsibility should be given to these committees to decide on planning issues in their wards. How will this work when the Town Hall does not even listen and respect the views on the Parish Council.

Would the committees be to standards rules like all Parish Councillors or will they be able to shoot from the hip and say and do what they want basically being a mouth piece for existing Ward Councillors who have to watch their step.

What is also intresting is the members of Parish Councils and Community Partnership groups are all volunteers and are not given an allowance.

So to every Volunteer in every Ward in the current system, I think the Lib Dems are very patronising and insulting and should be brought down a peg or ten.

What do you think?

Darlington Councillor said...

Well, anonymous, you're inviting to take a free kick at Mike and the LibDems. I shall take a deep breath and pass on that. I would, however, observe as follows...

It's fair to say that Area Committees are a LibDem totem nationwide. Certainly other Councils have adopted the area approach, with some limited powers and a little money dribbled down from the Town Halls for local communities to spend as they see fit.

You're quite correct when you wonder whether the Area Committee approach could offer anything new to Parish Councils. In my experience it's only at a parish level in Darlington that politics are truly local - it has always seemed a much more rewarding environment in which to operate as a result.

I'm not sure that the issue over planning is really a case of the Council consistently riding roughshod over the parishes - it's simply that councillors who do their job properly on the Planning Applications Committee are bound by local and national rules in a way that Parish Councillors are not. I was on Planning Applications for just one year, and became so disillusioned that I didn't turn up for the final few meetings (which I'm not proud of).

The resistance to Area Committees in Darlington has traditionally had a two-fold element to it - firstly because they have appeared to work tokenistically elsewhere. Is bunging £20k at a local councillor to spend as they see fit on facilities in consultation with the local committee really community empowerment?

Secondly, with it's tight geography, Darlington seemed to have fewer geographical certainties for properly acknowledged areas than some other Boroughs. Take the Kingsway in my patch, for instance. Estate agents say it's in Harrowgate Hill (I disagree). I think of it as Springfield. Other residents may simply regard themselves as being part of Haughton. This isn't an insurmountable problem, but is one that has slowed down progress on this point - more so than in other places, Darlington residents have tended to look to the Town Hall and not their local neighbourhood for leadership.

Having said all that, the relative success of the community partnerships, and the established strength of the parishes, does offer a way forward for local accountability in the Borough. The model that has to be developed has to be right for Darlington, however, and not simply a LibDem off-the-peg number.

Fundamentally, in the short term it's the ways of the Town Hall which have to be changed rather than seeking quick fixes in the Community Partnerships. In replying to Mike Barker at Council last week, John Williams was careful to rule nothing in or out as far as Area Committees (or local empowerment as I style it) is concerned.

Developing that model is complex and would take time, and in the intervening period I'm sure there are bigger prizes to be won elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Nick
You are saying that you have listend to the people, well it seems you only listend to the Tories and the Lib Dems and the Independent chair of the partnerships, you do have a Independent Cllr in council,do you not think it would have been democratic to include him in cabinet, as this Cllr was voted in by the people to represent them how can he when he has been excluded from participating with the other parties, shame on you labour controlled council.
TRUTHSEEKER

Darlington Democrat said...

While some people, including "Anonymous" above, might not like the fact that the Liberal Democrats are proposing new ideas for the town, it is at least a refreshing change from the supine "opposition" displayed by the Conservatives over the past few years.
The Labour Group has had it's own way for too long. Now, with the rise of grass-roots opposition, for example over Hurworth and Tesco, and the election of new members to Council, I expect there to be a much more lively and aggressive opposition to Labour.
Healthy debate and new ideas should not be seen as requiring the originator to be "taken down a peg or ten". It should be welcomed in the new spirit of openness an democracy signalled by Cllr Williams in the Council Chamber last week.
I'm sure Nick and his Cabinet colleagues, even those who are clearly not as capable as him, will relish the opportunity to argue for their policies and priorities both in Council and in public.

ian holme said...

Nick,
As I am sure you are aware, the Parish Councils have limited powers, (I am just finding out how limited!)and anything that improves local empowerment has got to be welcome.

I think the references to the Comm. P/ships is a misnomer, as the 11 set up by dbc only cover what they call the most "deprived wards". Surely all areas should be offered similar levels of representation?
In Hurworth a comm. p/ship has been established but receieves no assistance of recognition from dbc.

You also talk of the tight geography of darlington, once again completely ignoring the particular needs of the rural areas. Hurworth receives no support of substance in many areas, particularly youth services.

Whether the area committees are the answer is open to debate, but more local responsiblity has got to be the way forward.

Darlington Councillor said...

DD - I think you're right, and the next 4 years should be a lot livlier than the previous 10. In part that will be down to the infusion of new blood into Council on all sides of the Chamber, but also because of new ways of working.

A word of warning, however - structural changes to the Council won't deliver a jot if the culture of all the parties remains fixed. For sure as the majority party there is a burden of expectation on us to change, but the Tories and the LibDems have to think what that means for them too.

There will be nowhere to hide if they continue to pay lip-service to opposition, sit by and watch Labour take tough decisions, and then cry foul only when there's opposition from amongst the public or in the press. Blaming Labour for not listening, as an afterthought to cover their own inadequacies, simply won't wash.

Ian - in part my reservations over "Area Committees" are underlined by your comments. The rural areas are 'parished'. The most deprived urban wards have their Community Partnership. which are operating with varying degrees of success. For the rest of the town, there is a hotch-potch of Residents' Associations and nothing at all. Are there any residents' associations in any of the Tory-held West End wards, for example? In my patch, Whinfield Residents' Association covers the northern part of the ward, whilst the rest has nothing (something that we're seeking to speedily remedy).

I don't want to see a "one size fits all" approach, but clearly there needs to be some kind of structure in each locality which is right for that community - Hurworth's might look very different to North Road, for example.

These aren't insurmountable problems, but they have to be properly thought through if any local determination is going to be both meaningful and fair.